Saturday, February 7, 2015

Recipe of the Month: Crêpes

When I was a child, I heard of something called Crêpes Suzette.  I didn’t know what it was, other than a dessert (which made it of obvious interest), but I imagined something sweet somehow involved with a woman named Suzette, who was surely dark-haired and very beautiful because she was foreign.  Then one day I learned that crêpes were only thin pancakes - minus the maple syrup - and that Suzette was just the name of the very small girl present when they were served for the first time.  AND that the whole thing was, in fact, an accident in which the liqueur-soaked crêpe sauce accidentally caught fire in the kitchen.
     So much for the exotic Suzette and her crêpes!
     All over France you’ll find crêpes at sidewalk stands.  Their aroma and warmth are welcome in the cold grey drizzle of a Paris winter.  It was always a treat for my children on the way home from school.  Most French crêpes are served with just a smear of butter and a sprinkle of sugar, or with jam - usually strawberry or apricot - but sometimes with chocolate or hazelnut spread or crème de marron (a sweet chestnut spread).
     This recipe comes from my Paris neighbor Nicole, who says, “My recipe doesn’t come from Suzette, but from a certain Janine, a friend of my mother.  It makes 15 crêpes.  One big advantage:  it doesn’t have to be made ahead of time.  You can whip it up at the last minute.”
     However, you can make a crêpe batter up to two hours in advance and then cook the crêpes when your guests arrive.  Or you can cook a stack of them and keep them warm in the oven.  Dress them up with your favorite topping, flame them with a liqueur, or add dollops of whipped or ice cream and a shower of sliced almonds.  This recipe calls for rum but you can use anisette (anise flavoring), Cointreau or vanilla extract or any other liqueur or flavoring you like.  Plus citrus zest to give it some zing.
     This is the traditional way of making crêpes.  Julia Child just bungs everything in the mixer for 1 minute and strains any lumps out, but her batter has to be made 2 hours in advance (and left in the refrigerator).
     I’m posting this as February’s recipe because the 2nd is the Chandeleur (shahn-duh-luhr), the festival of the candles, which has been celebrated since the 7th century.  The tradition is to hold a gold louis d’or coin in one hand and flip the crêpe with the other.  (A silver dollar might work this side of the Atlantic.)  This will make you a) rich or b) grant the wish you made as you flipped your crêpe.

  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 T butter
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 T water
  • 1 T rum (or lemon or orange zest)
  • sugar to taste (remember, these are dessert crêpes)
  • pinch of salt

- Heat the milk to a boil.  Take the milk off of the burner and add the [melted] butter.  Leave it to cool.
- Put the flour in a large bowl.  Make a “well” in the center of the flour and break the eggs into the well, one by one.  Whisk well.
- Add a pinch of salt, then the water, then the flavoring (or zest).
Slowly stir in the cooled milk.  The batter should have no lumps, or else you need to strain them out.

Thanks, Nicole.  For those of you who have never made crêpes, here’s the drill:
- Stir the batter before making each crêpe.
- Pour a small “ladle-ful” of batter into a hot, well-greased crêpe or omelet pan, tilting the pan until just the bottom is thinly covered.  Remember:  these are not pancakes.  The crêpe should look almost like lace.
- When the edges start to brown, run a spatula knife under the crêpe, from the sides in, to make sure it doesn’t stick.
- Toss the crêpe to flip it and let it finish browning.

Don’t cook the crêpes too much; they should be golden, like the sun that they may once have represented at this half-way point of winter.

And don’t worry if your crêpe sticks to the ceiling or the cupboards when you flip it.  At least the first one.  In the old days, the French said that if it was still stuck there in the autumn, you’d have a good harvest.

There Goes the Neighborhood

A neighborhood is a living thing.  Not a shape-shifter, but more like a stage backdrop or a movie set that morphs with the seasons and the years until it’s not what it was but not yet what it will become.  Somehow it’s still the same... and yet...
     I’ve lived in Montmartre long enough to see it shed several of its skins. When I moved here in 1970, it was a mixed bag of blue collar workers who raised three kids in one- or occasionally two-bedroom apartments, and of artisans - plumbers, electricians, carpenters - and shopkeepers - the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the fish monger - plus just the right scattering of artists, actors and entertainers to keep things interesting. Everyone talked to everyone else as they went about their daily lives, which were somewhat overlapping and intertwined.
     After about fifteen years, there was a gradual spillover from the neighboring Arab part of the arrondissement that lies to the east, North Africans who were being squeezed out, it seemed, by sub-Saharan Africans moving in.  There was less talking and fraternizing then.  In the park across the street, I observed clans of Arab mothers in djellabas talking and laughing together loudly while similar clans of French mothers whispered amongst themselves from the other side of the sandbox.  Meanwhile, their children gleefully played together, not yet aware that kind of thing just wasn’t done.
     And then the Beautiful People discovered Montmartre.  It was shortly after the turn of the century, post-Y2K. They had bought up and gentrified the Marais and then the Bastille areas and were hungry for a new make-over project to spend Daddy’s money on. And my Butte, my lovely hill, was looking good.  They snapped up apartment after apartment - preferably in the western sector farther from the unsuitable smell of couscous and sound of Oum Kalthoum wafting from open windows.  They combined two apartments - vertically or horizontally, it didn’t matter - to have more space.  The result was that the population was cut drastically with the declining number of apartments and the declining number of children per family.  And I noticed a huge difference on week-ends.  Instead of children running around the streets and parks, the Beautiful People - the Bobos (bourgeois bohemians) - threw the kid(s) in the family car and drove to their country house for the week-end. Everything became remarkably different.

Place des Abbesses, with Kushi Teas (far rt) where the bookstore used to be
Stores changed, too.  If I walk down a street I can tell you what used to be in that clothes store or restaurant or bank or real estate agency - because that’s about all there is now, if you exclude a few specialty shops and a handful of hold-overs.

Charcuterie Durand, the former deli
   For instance, the south side of the Place des Abbesses used to have a Tunisian green grocer, which is now a bank.  A few doors down was a photographer, who closed over the summer of 2013.  The mainstay of the neighborhood, directly across from the Abbesses Métro stop and next to Eglise St. Jean, was a bookstore that also sold any newspaper or magazine you might want in a number of languages, as well as a vast range of office supplies, plus fax and photocopy services.  It was run by a crusty grump in a wheelchair (who was always nice to me, but then again, I smile a lot).  One day he had a fatal heart attack.  His children inherited the store - which he actually owned instead of just leasing.  The daughter lived in Canada and the son in northern France.  The son ended up running it for a year but it ate into his family time too much.  I suppose he could have arranged for the staff to run it - Lord knows they’d been around long enough - but I suspect Kushmi Teas, a high-end tea retailer, made him an offer he just couldn’t resist.  And so there was no longer a place to get your paper in the morning or your TV Guide at night.  Finally the city of Paris set up a newsstand on the Place des Abbesses because the demand was so vociferous... and there was money to be made from residents and tourists alike.
Jacky, the butcher - still there
   Another example is the Rue Tardieu, along the tourist route to the Sacré-Coeur.  If I start from one end, the bakery on the corner is now a pizza-and-crêpe café and the florist has become just one in a long line of tchotchke shops (which are rife in this part of Montmartre). The former wine shop across from them, which I knew under two successive owners, watching their children grow up, is now a pizza parlor.  Next to it, the old butcher shop is another pizza parlor. (If truth be told, the wine shop owner sold to a pizza guy just to get even with the pizza guy next door who had made his life miserable... or so he said.)  Next to that was a fur store (they made the coats themselves - maybe they were Armenian refugees), which became a toy store and is now a second tchotchke shop.  The former health food store now sells chocolates and macaroons and other sugary treats that are a far cry from health foods. Across from it was a little yarn shop that now sells nothing but... balls... all sizes and colors of balls:  ball-shaped lights, party decorations, foam balls you’re supposed to put in a fishbowl to look pretty... you get the picture.  (I have yet to see a customer in there but it’s still open after several years so maybe it launders drug money on the side.)  The little eatery that had formerly been a girdle maker is now a souvenir shop, as is the children’s clothing shop run by the sister of the yarn shop lady and her husband (are you still with me?)  Even the pharmacy has been transformed into a souvenir shop - a pharmacy closing is unheard of in France!  So now there are five souvenir shops in a row, a whole block of them, right down to the corner, nothing but that, and all selling the exact same kitschy things!
Pépone, the fish store - still there
     Across from the funiculaire there used to be two pastry shops.  The one that belonged to the Prandys is now an up-scale perfume shop, like the almost identical one up the street. Mme. Prandy was like a grandmother to my newly-born daughter and would sing her songs in her native Alsatian accent.  The other pastry shop was bought, via a straw man, by Häagen-Dazs for below its market value - something for which I’ll never forgive them.  Mr. Bertheau was kind-hearted and wanted to help the young man get started in the business, at the expense of his own retirement funds (he himself had worked since the age of 14) but the straw man never even opened up for business.  He just handed the keys over to Häagen-Dazs and pocketed the fee.  Both the Prandys and the Bertheaus had become personal friends of mine over the years, mainly because of my two children and their love for pains au chocolat and croissants, as well as my own.
Christophe, being replaced - no more bread
     On the side street, the fish monger is gone, as is the baker and the butcher, and the hairdresser/barber where old Mr. Mercier used to get a shave every morning on his walk around the city block, a way of keeping in shape for an old gentleman who won a Bronze Medal at the Olympics back in 1900. His last stop on his walk was the larger of the two pastry shops, where he once sang “Ainsi font font font les petites marionettes” for my infant daughter, complete with all the hand movements, much to the surprise of Mme. Prandy who had always found him a bit... brusque.
     The latest victim, which I discovered on my recent arrival, is the electrician.  My electrician.  A husband-and-wife team who, I’m told, have retired.  They did all the work on my apartment, all the repairs, all the improvements, and sold me bulbs for all the lights that were continually blowing, a fact that became a joke between us (“You again?!”).  Being close by, it was handy... and we became friendly.  I always stopped in when I walked by, said hello, pet their son’s dog, which they babysat during the day, and exchanged neighborhood news.
Manu, of Caves des Abbesses - in for the long haul
     There are a few businesses that have weathered the storm. My pet green grocer is still there, albeit with a lovely remodeling of his tiny shop (see blog, Sept 22, 2013).  The bookshop on Rue Tardieu is still a bookshop, but without my beloved Mlle. Pigeon, who has surely shuffled off her mortal coil by now.  There’s a tiny shop that sells magazines, newspapers and office supplies on a side street, but the owners are past their retirement age, so who knows how much longer it will last. Pépone is still there for your seafood-and-fish delight, with the same little Italian lady, now white-haired, behind the cash register, who always wishes me a buon giorno or buona sera.  I can still buy specialty foods from the Auvergne region in the little shop on Rue Lepic from the same sweet lady.  The deli is still a deli, under new management, but their rotisserie guy just doesn’t have Monsieur Durand’s knack with poultry; the fines herbes are missing.  So for roasted birds and all my meat needs, I go to Jacky down the street, who is still going strong, especially as he’s now the only butcher on the entire length of the Rue des Abbesses (see blog, Feb. 15, 2014).  The new baker, Gilles, across the square still bakes, but he makes only pastry, no bread, unlike Christophe (see blog, Sept. 14, 2012). Luckily, the Caves des Abbesses is doing fine, and with the owner’s son Manu at the helm it will surely live long and prosper (see blog, Feb. 22 2013).
     So that’s my neighborhood.  It’s changing, but the memories - or as they say in French les souvenirs - are still there.

P.S.  One change that I do appreciate is Pedestrian Sunday.  All the streets of Montmartre (from the various boulevards that encircle it right up to the tippy-top) are closed to car traffic (except the trusty little Monmartrobus) every Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm in the winter and 7 pm in the summer.  If you live in that perimeter and want to drive or take a cab, you have to prove it to the cop by showing a special pass or something official with your address on it.  Otherwise, it’s only people strolling, biking, skating or skate-boarding.  Smiling and laughing.  And the air is so much cleaner!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Gratin d'endive

Here in Paris it’s usually not as cold as in many parts of the U.S.  This has always amazed me, because on the map Paris is at the same latitude as Labrador, Canada. And yet the temperature rarely drops below freezing for long and snow is rare, thanks to the Gulf Stream which crosses the Atlantic and flows into the English Channel. That makes the climate milder.  On my first trip across the Channel to England, I was amazed to see the grass was still green at Christmas!
       Nevertheless, it rains a lot and the sun hides most of the winter.  That can chill you to the bone.  So winter often means “comfort food”, at least in the north of France.
       And yet... with all the excesses of the holiday season, and anxious to lose those added pounds you picked up (more the ladies than the gentlemen, but still...), I’ve chosen a winter dish that is low in calories as well as being inexpensive.  What more could you ask for, post-Santa?

P.S.  On a culinary note, although the word "endive" exists in both French and English, the French endive used in this recipe is generally called Belgian endive in English.  (Have I lost you yet?)  It's a member of the chicory family.  In fact, in the U.K. it is commonly called chicory when you find it on the markets.  The Dutch appropriately call it witloof  (or witlof), which means white leaf, perhaps as they don't want to be caught up in the attribution of a nationality to it.  After all, French fries are actually Belgian, so...

  • 8 endives
  • 1/4 of a stick of butter
  • 3 T of flour
  • ½ t salt
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 to 1 1/4 c milk
  • 1/4 c grated parmesan
  • 6 to 8 thin slices of prosciutto or other dry-cured ham
  • 2 T of shavings of Emmenthal or Comté cheese 
  • 1½ t freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
 - Wash the endives.  The white base of the endive is what makes it bitter, so you want to cut off just that part.  Take too much off and the endive will fall apart.
 - Melt the butter over low heat so that it doesn’t color.  As soon as it starts to bubble, take the pan off the burner and whisk in the flour, salt, nutmeg and Cayenne pepper.  Stir until it thickens.
 - Put the saucepan back on the burner and slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly.  (Whole milk preferably, or else 2%, but NOT skimmed, as it could make the taste too “thin”.)  Turn the burner way down and continue to stir until there are no lumps.  Let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring regularly.  It’s done when it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
 - Add in the parmesan and continue to simmer for 2 or 3 minutes until the cheese melts into the mixture.  Give it one last stir to make sure the cheese is evenly distributed, then take it off the burner.
 - Butter the bottom and sides of an attractive deep baking dish big enough to hold all eight endives in one layer.  (An attractive one so it can go directly onto the table.)  Arrange the endives in the dish and drape the ham over them.  (Another way is to wrap each endive in a slice of ham, provided the slices are large enough or the endives skinny enough.)  Pour the sauce over the top and add a few little dabs of butter on top.  Then sprinkle the cheese shavings evenly over the whole thing.
 - Put the dish into the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top becomes lightly browned.  Check that the endives are tender by sticking them with a knife.
 - Grind some fresh pepper over the top and serve in its dish while it’s piping hot.

If you want to enjoy a glass of wine with this, try a crisp white wine, such as a côtes du jura or a riesling.

Obviously this dish will be much more delicious if you work from scratch, grating the nutmeg and parmesan yourself and using the more expensive types of ham.  But you can also make it with packaged sliced cooked ham and pre-grated Parmesan if you’re strapped for time and short on cash. It’s still a very tasty all-in-one meal that children just may like if you tell them it’s basically cheese and ham.  With the endive being white, they may not even notice it's a vegetable.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Out & About - Events - The Bar at Buena Vista

It’s October 1962.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy is President and I’m a junior in high school.  The Cuban missile crisis is rampant and we are all glued to our TV sets until the moment when the Russian cruiser with the nuclear missiles destined for Cuba does a U-turn and heads home.  The Brink of Destruction has been avoided.
     Now it’s December 2014.  Barack Hussein Obama is President and I’m an aging expatriate in Paris, where I’ve, by now, spent half my life.  And the Palais des Congrès is featuring The Bar at Buena Vista, starring some of the survivors of Cuban music shipwrecked by Castro’s Revolution in 1959.
     These are not the musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club album and film, but Toby Gough, the Scotsman who leads this troupe and acts as narrator, has banded together 17 of their talented compatriots to carry proudly the flag of Cuban music.  As Toby explains, it’s all built around the Cuban barman from the actual BVSC who introduced him to these legends.
     First out is The Black Prince, Capullo, aged 77.  Then, resplendent in red, comes Luis Chacon Mendive, aka Aspirina because his voice cures all ills, even at age 88.  After that a piano medley by maestro Guillermo Rubalcaba Gonzales, 84.  He starts with Guantanamera, followed by La Vie en Rose - it’s a French crowd after all - then on to El Cumanchero with a burning bongo solo, and finishing with Hernando’s Hideaway.  A little something for everyone.
Ignacio Mazacote Carrillo
     There’s also the dancer Eric Turro Martinez, called the Cyclone because of his ability to spin like a top all around the stage and around his partners, and who somehow manages to dance with three women at once.   Ignacio Mazacote Carrillo continues to sing with a strong voice at 82, his hips still swaying in spite of a cane that he tosses away in his last number.  Oldest at 92, but still with an unwavering voice, is Reynaldo Creagh.  And last, but not least, honneur aux dames:  Cuban diva Siomara Avilla Valdes, whose age is somewhere in the 70s.  In the middle of her song she dances with a young man from the front row who holds his own and they end up with some Dirty Dancing, Cuba-style.
     Following on rumba, mambo, cha-cha and son comes a tribute to Afro-jazz - and especially to Chano and Dizzy - as the amazing Elpidio Chapotin Delgado on trumpet breaks into a hot Cuban version of My Funny Valentine that would make Gillespie himself nod and smile.
     After an hour and a half followed by almost another full hour after the intermission, the audience is on their feet and dancing, me included. Ending with the classic Chan-Chan as an encore - and before their second show in only a few hours -  these octagenarians and nonagerians could teach the youngsters a thing or two.   It’s sad that they had to spend decades shining shoes, washing dishes, rolling cigars or working at the dry cleaners.  But it’s wonderful that their voices are still strong and they’re spending the last years of their lives traveling first class and bowing to a standing ovation.

If you want more information on the show, or to see a video-amalgam of the acts, click on

Monday, December 1, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Mousse au chocolat

Joyeux Noël!
      Christmas in France is a family affair, and the big meal is served Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass.  Or it used to be.  Nowadays it’s often served, as in America, on Christmas Day after the presents are opened.  The traditional dessert is a bûche, for which there are many different recipes, all of which are complicated to make.
     Christmas also means marrons glacés (candied chestnuts), each one individually wrapped in shiny gold foil.  But above all, it means chocolates.
     Some of my favorite memories are of hours spent watching pastry chef Bernard Bertheau make them himself in the basement of his shop in Montmartre. It was cramped by modern standards, and a lot of the equipment dated back to his start in the trade sometime shortly after World War II.  But it was brightly lit and spotlessly clean... and toasty warm.  I would pick my way down the narrow, winding stairs and hear him moan “Oh non, l’Américaine!”... with a big smile on his face.  Monsieur Bertheau loved to tease and he adored anyone who shared his passion for pastry and chocolates.
     I never failed to be amazed by the speed and sureness of his movements, and by how he always knew when the melted chocolate was too cold to work.  He’d pop the large stainless steel bowl back in his huge pastry oven for just a few seconds, pull it out, stir vigorously, drop in almonds or candied orange peel, then take them out one at a time, stuck on his fork (making that trademark three lines on the chocolate coating) and leave them to cool on the marble work surface.  He was proud of his handiwork, and I think he enjoyed “catching” me pop one into my mouth.  I’ve never tasted chocolate so good!
     One day Monsieur Bertheau retired and sold the shop.  I inherited some of his vintage chocolate molds, but so far I haven’t screwed up my courage to try them.  His act is just too hard to follow.  I’ve visited him and his wife in their home in their native Loire region.  Since the shop closed seventeen years ago, he hasn’t made a pastry or a chocolate.  But then I guess he made enough of them in his fifty-year career to last a lifetime.
     Still, I wish he would.
     And invite me.

There are as many recipes for mousse au chocolat as there are cooks.  Light and fluffy with milk chocolate, heavy and creamy with dark chocolate... With or without liqueur. And everyone likes their own best.
   This is Monsieur Bertheau’s version, which is easy and fast to make.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

  • 200 g (7 oz) of baking chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 30 g (1/4 stick or 2 T) of butter, cut into small pieces
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 c of liqueur such as cognac or Grand Marnier (optional)
  • 50 g (1 3/4 oz or 1/5 c) sugar

-  Select a 2-quart stainless steel bowl and a saucepan large enough so that the bowl fits snugly on top.  Pour boiling water into the saucepan and set the bowl on top of it.  Keep the water at a simmer.
- Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl.  Continue stirring until well blended, then remove the bowl from the pan.
- Add the sugar to the egg yolks and mix with a wooden spoon until they are frothy.
- Mix the egg yolk/sugar mixture (and optional liqueur) into the chocolate, and stir until thoroughly blended.
- Place the bowl briefly in the refrigerator until the mixture is slightly cooler than lukewarm.  If it becomes too chilled, it will harden, so don’t let it get too cold.
- Beat the egg whites until they are stiff.
- Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture until it’s all the same chocolate-ness in color.  Do not beat or stir them or the egg whites will “fall”.
- Spoon the mousse into 4 ramekins.  You can decorate it with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings, almond slices, cinnamon, mint sprig, or anything else your imagination whispers in your ear.
- Chill briefly until ready to serve.

P.S.  This is a good recipe for lactose intolerant people, as there is neither milk nor cream, only butter, which could, I suppose, be replaced by a non-dairy substitute, although I think Monsieur Bertheau would be chagrined.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Out & About: Le pari de l'impressionnisme

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  That’s one of the questions we had to discuss in college - Philosophy 101. 
     Likewise, if an artist paints and no one is around to admire his (or her) artwork, is it still beautiful?  Or on a more basic level, how will the artist eat?
Paul Durand-Ruel,
by Renoir (1910)
     In art, the gallery owner is a vital link. And for Impressionism, that gallery owner was Paul Durand-Ruel.  He was born into the art world, taking over the family business in Paris.  But during the Franco-Prussian War he had to flee to London, where he met up with a group of French painters who were also in exile. They included Daubigny, Monet and Pissarro.  Which is why his first Impressionist show was held in London in 1872 ... and he never looked back after that.
     Although he returned to Paris once it was again safe, his genius for promoting the school of art he loved so much was to perceive that its success would lie across the Atlantic among American art lovers, who not only admired the artworks but bought them.  It also saved him from bankruptcy.  He opened a gallery in New York, which his two sons ran alternately in six-month stints.  Many of today’s Impressionist collections in the major American museums passed through the hands of Durand-Ruel.

As the Musée du Luxembourg is a tight fit, I let the week-end go by before sallying out.  Unfortunately, I forget some people are taking a long week-end.  (Tuesday is Nov. 11, the end of World War I.  Big deal here in Europe.)  “Usually,” the ticket seller tells me, “Monday is calm, but...” Then he waves his arm at the milling crowd.
     The first room is always the most crowded.  People are anxious to see it all.  Moving slowly, listening to their audioguide.  What’s more, the first room also has the smaller documents, so there’s more to peruse.  With the lighting low, documents are hard to read, so I skim over that part.  There’s enough to see on the walls.  First off is Renoir, and his portraits of the Durand-Ruel family:  the elderly Paul on the left as you enter, the young sons along the other wall.  The most interesting thing for me in this first room were the doors to the Durand-Ruels’ living room... painted by Monet. In each of the panels is a floral motif:  vases with tall flowers in the long top panels, branches of lemons and oranges on the lesser bottom panels, and close-ups of flowers on the small horizontal ones in the middle.
The Sheep Fold, Millet
     The following room gives an idea of the pre-Impressionist art world.  Delacroix, Corot, a piece with pumpkins by Courbet that’s just right for this Hallowe’en-Thanksgiving season, Millet’s The Sheep Fold that sold for more than any other painting of its time... Works by all of these artists were revealed to the public by Paul Durand-Ruel.  But when his path crossed that of the Impressionists, the art dealer’s had an epiphany.
     Impressionism was to become his specialty, as demonstrated in the rest of the museum, a series of interlocking rooms just chock-a-block with masterpieces.  There are a few portraits by Manet and also a historic painting of a sea battle off Cherbourg where a Yankee ship sinks a gun-running Confederate ship; all part of the blockade but happening far from American shores.  I find Manet the most classical of the Impressionists and he’s not one of my favorites.
Mlle Lala, Degas
     Degas, on the other hand is and there are a few by him - horse racing scenes and ballet of course, the artist’s two favorite subjects... plus a surprising Mademoiselle Lala au cirque Fernando, much larger than his other works.  The lighting on Mlle. Lala hanging from a rope by her teeth is amazingly luminescent, as befits a circus.
     There’s a waterscape by Boudin, the father of Impressionism and mentor to the young Monet.  Sisley is here - landscapes with his ever-present water leitmotiv. Cézanne as well, easing us out of Impressionism and into something new, his Le Moulin sur la Couleuvre vers Pontoise looking almost Cubist.
Femme à sa toilette, Morisot
     The ladies are also represented.  There are two paintings by Berthe Morisot:  a landscape from Washington’s National Gallery of Art and, from the Art Institute of Chicago, the diaphanous Femme à sa toilette, all mirrors, soft fabrics and gentle light.  (The lady may be getting ready to go out, but somehow I feel she’s just come home after a long night at the Opéra, something about the tired pose of her hand getting ready to let down her hair.)  There are even two canvases by the American Mary Cassatt:  a portrait of Durand-Ruel’s daughter from a private collection and The Child’s Bath, again from the Art Institute of Chicago, an intimate moment between mother and child, so sharply detailed it looks like an etching in color.
     But Pissarro - Durand-Ruet’s first Impressionist purchase - and Renoir and Monet were clearly his favorites and are most represented here.  I admit I’m not a big fan of Renoir; I find his women are far too pink.  But seeing three of his dancing couples side by side by side is quite striking. They’re placed just before the exit, on a wall all to themselves, for maximum effect.  All three were painted the same year: 1883.  Two come from the Musée d’Orsay but the third - Danse à Bougival - is on loan from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  In it, Suzanne Valadon dances with a bearded gentleman in a straw hat.  It’s also Suzanne Valadon who posed for Danse à la campagne, but the bearded man here is much darker and more elegantly dressed.  Valadon lived right around the corner from my atelier-apartment in Montmartre, so I enjoy discovering the face of her youth.  She would have been only 18 in these paintings, and already an artist in her own right, but not yet the mother of Maurice Utrillo.
Eglise de Varengeville, Monet
     The Monets were the most interesting. Renoir pretty much always remained Renoir, a type-casting of the artist world.  But Monet morphed, especially in his Varengeville works.  In Eglise de Varengeville his style looks a bit like Van Gogh, the cliffs rendered in thick, slashing strokes, the clouds fluffy blurs.  Yet nearby his Pointe de douaniers, Varengeville is somewhat pointilliste.  Two entirely different styles.  As with Renoir’s dancers, the museum has juxtaposed three poplar canvases by Monet, one from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the second from London’s Tate Gallery and the last from Philadelphia’s Museum of Art.  It’s wonderful to see them reunited here.
Vue de Saint-Mammès, Sisley
     If I had to pick a favorite of the 80 canvases, it would have to be Sisley’s Vue de Saint-Mammès, on loan from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art.  All the different lighting effects - in the sky, in the water - the houses and their reflections so strikingly rendered - the opposition in texture between the reeds and the water they grow out of... It’s just perfection.
     In order to pull off a show of this kind, there must have been a lot of correspondence flitting back and forth between the leading museums of the world:  London, Berlin, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, not to mention the private collections.  I wonder how many years this was in the making!

As I said, the Musée du Luxembourg museum is small and can be very crowded, although they try to limit the number of visitors inside at any one time.  So it’s better to go on an “off-day” rather than the week-end.  And perhaps book an entrance time beforehand, on-line.  But this is an exhibit not to be missed if you are a lover of Impressionism.
     And if you feel you’ve been especially good and patient, you might want to reward yourself with a pastry at the shop just outside the entrance.  It’s the annex of the famous Angelina’s on the rue de Rivoli across from the Tuileries Garden.

Paul Durand-Ruel:
Le pari de l'impressionisme

Musée du Luxembourg
19 r de Vaugirard; 6è
Métro Luxembourg or Rennes

Oct 9, 2014 - Feb 8, 2015
10-7 T-Th / 9-8 Sat & Sun / 10-10 M & F

12 & 7.50 €

For a video of the show (in French), click on La galerie France 5 -

Saturday, November 8, 2014

On the Road: Fin de Siècle Museum, Brussels

Paris has the Musée d’Orsay.  Now Brussels has the Musée Fin de Siècle.
     With my train arriving from Leuven hours before my lunch with a friend, I had time to spare.  And uphill from the Central Station lies a whole complex of museums, the Royal Museums of the Fine Arts of Belgium.  As part of the “redeployment” of their collections, they had the excellent idea of creating a museum for René Magritte in June of 2009. Then only a year and a half ago they created a “turn of the century” museum.  And it covers the artistic period dear to my heart:  the Impressionist years.
     Whether this decision was to attract some of the funds that flow from the swarms of art lovers who flood the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, or whether it was just the brainchild of the curator, it was brilliant.  I decided to give it a peek... and surfaced (literally) well over two hours later.

You enter at ground level, “ground” being at the top of the hill overlooking the old sector of Brussels.  And it’s all downhill from there.  Again, literally.

     After you buy your ticket, you pass through a majestic hall, which reminded me of the Detroit Institute of Arts hall, minus Diego Rivera’s frescos.   On one side stands a marble statue of a very shapely naked man with a sword.  Across from him, a painting of a class full of young girls in white frocks and bonnets who, at that time, had probably never even seen their father with his shirt off.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
     Then you go down a level, where you’re obligated to leave your goodies in a locker.  Ladies, be warned that even my oversized purse was persona non grata, although I saw no artwork in the museum actually small enough to fit in it, should I have decided to try to steal it.  They do allow cameras though, and the taking of photos (without flash) which isn’t the case for all museums any more especially those with well-stocked museum shops.
     After that you go down another level, and that’s where the art trip through time begins.

Generally speaking, the art is displayed in chronological order.  The lower the floor, the deeper into Impressionism you are.  On the first level down is an oil-on-wood masterpiece by Henri Leys called Churchgoers.  His sketch of a nattily-dressed couple headed off to church on a Sunday morning is rich in color, in spite of being incomplete.  It marks the start of the transition into Realism by this Romantically-trained Belgian artist.
Ixelles, Rainy Morning
     The next painting that caught my fancy was a jump back slightly in time, to John Constable and his Sky Study:  Brighton Beach.  Here were the very beginnings of what would become Impressionism by the time Guillaume Vogels painted his oil canvas of Ixelles, Rainy Morning just a few feet farther down the wall.  The “impression” of rain and gloom made you want to turn your collar up and open your umbrella.

Trees beside the Lys - Emile Claus
     And then the clouds part and the blue skies come out and I was walking along the banks of the Lys River with Emile Claus almost at the turn of the century.  In Trees Beside the Lys, the rosy sun - whether at dawn or dusk - lights up row upon row of tall trees, the whole picture reflected in water the same color as the sky.  It was all quite misty and ethereal.

     Two more paintings stood out for me, both colorful but in totally different palettes and in different styles.  The first was Edouard Vuillard’s Two Schoolchildren.  They seem to be hiding behind some trees, looking at the elegant ladies passing by as we look at them from outside the frame.  One seems to be pointing and whispering something to the other.  I wished I could have heard him.  The second painting was very busy where Vuillard’s had been almost secretive.  Full of bursts of bright orange and long Algerian robes, slashed by sharp shadows, Henri Evenepoel captured the heat of Algeria in his Orange Market at Blida.  You could almost feel the dust and smell the citrus in the air, and see hints of what
would come later with Fauvism, long after Evenepoel died at only 27.

     At the very lowest level (-8!), there were the most recent paintings in the collection. One was a group of strange faces by Emile Fabry.  Most of the women are staring at something one of them is holding; it looks like colorful flowers.  Others are staring straight out of the painting, at us, the viewers.  All of them show no emotion at all, which I found strange in view of the title - The Offering - but perhaps that’s normal for Symbolism.  Another Symbolist painting nearby was of a different style:  something like a cross between Gauguin for the background scene and Puvis de Chavannes (of Paris Panthéon fresco fame) for the hallucinatory Virgin with Child in the foreground.  It was painted by Gustave van die Woestyne and is called Sunday Afternoon for some reason - although that might explain the Virgin - and the farmers are not working but just admiring their pigs.  In spite of the flatness of the image, perspective is indicated by the size of objects and by the spacing of the lines of the hedge and also the fence.  It was quite fascinating.
   That final level also has a collection of furniture and house decorations that would make a fan of Art Nouveau swoon.  A fireplace facade by Jean-Désiré Müller, a desk by Joseph Boverle... and the fantastic Gillion Crowet Collection with bronzes by Mucha, silverware by Follot, glass by Gallé and much more.  It just goes on and on.  A feast for the eyes.  And provides a three-dimensional break from the two dimensions of all those photographs and paintings.

In talking with one of the guards at the end of my visit, I learned that there is yet another level to this museum, but one not open to the public.  On that final level he said there was a grating under which you could see and hear a river flowing below.  In other words, you - and the museum - have traveled down through the entire hill, to its base and the underground stream that probably empties into the city's only river, the Zenne (unless it's already part of it), or into the Charlevoix Canal.
     Given how many levels there are, you’ll be happy to know that there’s an elevator you can take back up to the exit-and-shop level at the end of your visit... and it even has seats in it.  It appears there’s also a café and a brasserie, but I didn’t see either.  Of course I’d spent far more time than I’d planned admiring the art collection and I was running late so I really didn’t look very hard.  They’re probably near the gift shop.
     This museum has a lot to offer, so plan enough time to enjoy it fully. It’s roomy and quiet.  And the lighting is remarkable, which is a good thing because the darkness in these bowels of the earth could make the atmosphere feel almost claustrophobic at times.  You would be doing yourself a great service to visit the Brussels sister of the Orsay Museum in Paris.  Belgian artists often seem to be the poor cousins in the art world. So even if you think you know all about Impressionism, you’ll find artists here you perhaps didn’t know.

Musée de Fin de Siècle

3 Rue de la Régence
1000 Brussels
Ph: +32 (0)2 508 32 11


Open Tuesday - Sunday 10 - 5

The Offering - Emile Fabry